It's not just about badgering Blair
With the vote on university top-up fees only hours away, today's Telegraph leader is excellent on why Conservatives can in good conscience vote down the measure: it has been so compromised it will now raise very little money; it is spitefully, viciously egalitarian, the same people who destroyed our secondary schools now waging class war in the tertiary sector; and it binds the universities to government more closely than ever, when increasing their independence from the state has to be the way forward.
Having conceded so much to his back-bench rebels in terms of additional help for poorer students, and having failed to receive extra money from the Treasury to fund those concessions, Mr Blair has already spent (or committed the universities to spending) much of the new income.
... The power to levy fees will not belong to universities themselves. They will simply be licensed to collect an additional ring-fenced tax to supplement their taxpayer-funded subsidy. This is the very opposite of a market-based finance system, and the Conservatives are right to oppose it.
... A radical overhaul of the system is needed and its priorities must be fairness and efficiency. The universities are currently financed as a tax-funded, centrally administered monopoly in which spending is traditionally based on the public sector principle of "more means better". Efficiency, in the commercial sense of obtaining value for money for every purchase of a commodity or a service, is rarely a consideration. The bureaucratic habits of the public sector are commonplace in universities.
If higher education continues to be run on wasteful public sector assumptions, then adding compulsory charges to "top up" existing budgets is unlikely to produce efficiency. If, as well, the Government demands more influence on the universities' admissions policies in return for the right to charge top-up fees, then fairness is hardly likely to be the result. The universities will have to earn their right to charge by meeting government demands for what it calls "wider access". What this means, in effect, is that the middle class (or middle income) students will be penalised in two separate ways: they are likely to be discriminated against at admission (since their family background, through no fault of their own, is disfavoured by the Government) and, if accepted, they will receive none of the extra help in grants and bursaries given to fellow students from perhaps only marginally poorer homes.
There is a socially destructive (and morally dubious) precedent being set by this measure, which has effectively been mutated into a rather spiteful graduate tax. Once they are earning over the minimum limit, graduates from middle class families will have to repay far larger loans than comparably qualified working class graduates who, having received the Government's accumulated fee remissions, bursaries and maintenance grants, will have needed to borrow much less. Thus, two people on identical incomes will be paying differential rates of tax, based purely on their "class" origins. Whatever solution the Conservatives propose to problems of financing poorer students, it must not incorporate this illiberal notion of hereditary guilt.
... Those MPs planning to vote against the Bill tonight may worry that defeat of the Government will plunge the university sector into financial chaos. But Britain's universities are not (yet) nationalised: they remain independent institutions. It would be perfectly plausible (and constitutionally proper) to produce a policy that reinforced that independence instead of diminishing it. Government endowments, and the introduction of tax breaks for private endowments, could form the basis for a viable future which would incorporate an element of student fee that was not class-prejudiced.